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These bomb-sniffing dogs are first layer of security at Sky Harbor Airport and beyond

When the Transportation Security Administration was founded in November of 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was no real blueprint for how to screen everything and everyone moving through the country’s airports.

Bomb-sniffing dogs had been used in a limited capacity for years up to that point.  But in 2008, the Explosion Detection Dogs Program was created, and they’ve become an essential part of airport security.

Patty Mancha with the TSA said it all starts with how the dogs are trained.

“Our dogs are trained to only look for explosives,” said Mancha. “Explosive materials, anything that can be used to cause harm on an aircraft in large crowds, et cetera.”

Over the course of 18 weeks, they’re paired with a handler and trained in a facility that spans acres in San Antonio.

“These are finely trained athletes,” Mancha said. “They're fed a certain diet, they get medical care, they get certain hours of sleep.”

It’s all in the name of building up security in layers, with the TSA K-9s acting as one of the first.

“He might show him some love to show him that, ‘Hey, you're doing a good job,’” Mancha said as a trainer and their dog paused between screening travelers.

“But at the same time, once the traveler comes in, the dog's ready to go. You see that, and then you also see the way the dog looks at his handler with a lot of love.”

According to Sandy Whitehead, who oversees the K-9 team at Sky Harbor, the dogs also love what they do.

“I have heard more than one handler laugh that at the end of the day, when they go to go home, the dog is dragging you the other way because they want to stay at work,” said Whitehead.

Even though they get to go home with their handlers every night, she said it’s important to understand: “They have wonderful lives and they're pampered, but they still are not pets.”

Just like a service animal that might assist someone with a disability, said Whitehead, these dogs have a job to do.

“Most people are dog lovers,” said Mancha, echoing that sentiment. “We all are. But it's not like you're gonna come to the officer and tell them how to do their job. It's the same way with the dogs."

She explained that breaking a K-9’s focus only slows down the line for everyone.

In the maze of roped-off lines that lead up to where TSA agents check passengers’ boarding passes, there’s an area with a pair of fans at one end and a pair of agents at the other.

At their direction, people walked two-by-two toward the fans while the dogs and their handlers crossed behind them. The fans blow the travelers’ scent toward the dog, whose focus is locked in as they cross behind each pair, sniffing intently.

The first dog we see at work is Mango.

“Mango is kind of a moderate to slower pace,” said Andy Tischer, his handler of two years, “[He] has a great nose, takes his time to get to where he's got to go, but he doesn't miss. So he's a lot of fun to work with, as you can see, he's very playful, loves to play and interact. He likes other dogs, but he gets very excited and barks.”

According to Tischer, Mango is like a lot of other Labradors — and that’s on purpose. The TSA carefully chooses breeds more inclined to this kind of work.

“These dogs are chosen because they have a kind of a focus when it comes to playing with toys,” he said. “And when they're trained, we convert that into a focus into their job.”

And even with developing technology, Tischer said the dogs’ instincts and heightened sense of smell are a great tool for efficiently screening travelers.

“There's tremendous technology out there and none of it is anywhere near as good as these dogs,” said Tischer.

Rhena Quedado echoed the sentiment.

“We're always finding ways to challenge our dogs and to make them that much better,” she said.

Quedado has been working with K-9s at Sky Harbor for over a decade. She said success lies in the extensive, ongoing training for both her and her dog partners.

“A lot of it is rapport building,” said Quedado. “It's playing with the reward, just kind of relaxing with him while we're off work.”

Don is the third dog Quedado has worked with, and he stood dutifully by her side outside Sky Harbor’s Terminal 3.

“Don, he's very special,” Quedado said, giving him a smile. “He's a pretty goofy guy. He enjoys what he does, especially when we're out searching vehicles, on the aircraft.”

Mancha said that every successful handler-dog duo she’s met has a bond that goes deeper than just training, even if it is crucial.

“They have that camaraderie,” said Mancha. “They have that connection.”

When a K-9 gets older, retirement depends on a lot of factors.

“It's always a big decision with the trainer and the handler, because it affects the whole team,” Mancha explained. “We always put the health and welfare of that K-9 first.”

She added that they want to be sure every dog on duty is performing at their best because the layer of security they provide is also relied on to secure large gatherings and big events beyond the airport, like the Super Bowl or the Final Four in April.

“These dogs have a very critical role in what they're doing,” said Mancha. “I mean, they wouldn't go protect a president if that wasn't the case.”

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Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.